In Praise of Understated Themes

Been visiting a lot of WordPress sites lately—an occupational hazard of the beat. I have to admit I’m moderately astonished at how many WP bloggers choose gaudy themes that scream for attention to the design, often at the expense of the content.

I don’t want to point fingers, but you know the symptoms of the type:

  • Gigantic heading fonts
  • In-your-face bright colors
  • Flashing ads that seem like the modern equivalent of blink tags

Now often there is good information contained on these sites, but sometimes you wonder whether the design is really serving the content, or the content is there to bring attention to the pictures (or more precisely, the ads).

Now of course one great thing about blogging is Attracting Attention to Yourself. If we just wanted a diary to keep our thoughts together, we’d probably just buy a blank book and put pen to paper, or get some use out of our favorite word processor. No, we want to have (crave, even) readers. And the experts tell us posts should be brief (I think mine have gotten shorter over the years) to accommodate short attention spans. But the big fonts and graphics that seem to overwhelm all else … underwhelm me.

Notes from the Metaverse has had approximately two themes since moving to some years ago, and I think I changed the header image in the current theme (Regulus, a really old theme from Ben Gillbanks) once. I really like that there’s not much to the theme besides that header image.  This allows you to focus on the content. I’m a little flashier with the colors over at the other site with Caribou, from James R Whitehead at, but I’m playing with a new one, The Erudite, from Matt Wiebe that seems to be more like me.

One of the other great things about blogging is that you get the opportunity to improve your writing skills by “publishing every day” (or at least every week or two). So take advantage of that opportunity. Don’t be tempted to devalue your writing or information-gathering skills by grabbing that ostentatious theme. Let your content shine, and the readers will come.

Welcome LibreOffice!

It’s been more than a week now since the Great OpenOffice Fork of 2010, and the dust is beginning to settle.

If you haven’t heard, last Monday a large chunk of the (OOo) development community announced the formation of The Document Foundation (TDF), and would create a new office suite based on OOo, called LibreOffice. The announcement carried endorsements from many heavy hitters in the open source and corporate worlds, including Google, Novell, Red Hat, and Canonical. Even the GNOME Foundation (while noting the existence of its own small suite) had nice things to say at the launch.

Absent from the party were a pair of giants: IBM and Oracle. The latter was not surprising, as the database company put this train in motion by acquiring Sun Microsystems, the firm who had released OpenOffice into the wild some years back. TDF invited Oracle to participate in the effort, and expressed hope they would release the copyrights to the OpenOffice name. Yep, that was going to happen. Monday, Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols reported that Oracle has officially declined to participate in the Foundation.

With more than 100 million users, we believe is the most advanced, most feature-rich open-source implementation and will strongly encourage the OpenOffice community to continue to contribute through

Today, Italo Vignoli of TDF reports, among many interesting numbers, that the LibreOffice beta has been downloaded some 80,000 times in its first week of existence. The beta consists of rebranded OpenOffice v3.3 code. There’s a support forum for those users now running too.

Here’s a sample of some of the best reporting and thinking I saw, outside of the mainstream tech press, on the announcement:

Now comes the fallout, as the rest of the OpenOffice community has to pick sides. Eric Bachard of the OOo Education project initially posted a skeptical article called “No LibreOffice for Me” to his blog, but apparently pulled it in the intervening time. Jean Hollis Weber of the Documentation Project (close to my heart, of course) wondered about the future: “At this point I’m not quite sure what this will mean for my role as Co-Lead of the Documentation Project, given my enthusiasm for the Foundation.”

While most of the coverage and blogging about LibreOffice and TDF was quite positive, Matt Asay of Canonical expressed a dissent that I saw a lot of in roaming around online in his essay for GigaOm: “LibreOffice: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (and Gone).”

It’s unclear what a web-light, client-heavy Microsoft Office clone can hope to achieve in terms of real innovation. And why are we worried about replicating Microsoft Office functionality, which has long been the aim of the OpenOffice community? While some Excel spreadsheet jocks may live in Microsoft Office, very few of the rest of us give it more than a cursory glance on a regular basis. It’s not that we’re not engaged in “office productivity,” either. We just work differently now.

While I don’t begrudge Asay’s ability to work with Google Docs and Zoho in his day job, I can tell you that there are millions of us still using word processors and the like installed on a desktop, safely behind a corporate firewall. Maybe that will change over time, but for now, I’d much prefer using LibreOffice than that other dominant suite.

I wish the LibreOffice team the best of luck building their new suite, and devising many new and effective ways of communicating. Keeping KOffice on their toes as well!

As we watch this community grow, I hope the openSUSE community can learn some lessons as well. One thought from this corner: Suddenly the idea of an independent foundation to manage the community doesn’t sound so out in left field. With the openSUSE Conference coming up, there’s a lot to discuss.

WriteCamp2: A Stimulating and Energizing Day

Had a marvelous time at WriteCamp Milwaukee 2 Saturday.

Mercy Hill Church at the Hide House is a fantastic venue, which you can see for yourself in the Flickr feed. The space was broken up into five session areas: Two in the main “sanctuary” area, with plenty of separation, so no one got confused by audio bleedthrough; three smaller classrooms.

The whole conference had a pretty analog feel to it for this techie. I brought my laptop, and lugged it around unopened pretty much all day. I confined my notes to pen and paper.

Sessions were 45 minutes long, with 15 minutes in between to move around. Usually enough time to take another look at the board and pick another location. Take a look at the full schedule. This review will of necessity take up only the sessions I could attend.

Morning Sessions

First session was with Daniel Goldin of Boswell Books. While mostly focused on fiction, he had great stories about the business of book selling. Best factoid, only peripherally writing-related: you  know how mass-market paperbacks used to be all the same size, around 6″ x 5″? As the reading population has aged, publishers made the paperbacks a little bit taller, so the font could be bigger!

Next up, I went to my only foray into the fiction realm, a session called “Reading as a Writer” hosted by Chris (whose last name I never did get — sorry!), an English prof at Columbia College in Chicago. He brought readings from three short stories (Gogol’s “The Nose,” John McNally’s “The Vomitorium” and something from Katherine Anne Porter). He would pick random people in the crowd to read a page or so aloud, and then we’d discuss the memorable bits of material on the page. Chris emphasized that simply by noting what stands out in a reading will improve our own writing. For fiction writers, the lesson was not to get all hung up on the symbolism and the Great Message behind a story (at least not at first). Just concentrate on the details that pull you into a story and make a story memorable. Good lessons for nonfiction writers too.

Todd Sattersten of 100 Best Business Books of All Time fame led another business-and-marketing session with perhaps the best title of the day: “Venture Capital, Viruses and Versioning: Three Things Every (Book) Author Needs to Know.” Do I need to tell you he knows a bit about marketing? This was the most satisfying session I attended.

The Venture Capital part of this talk is a reminder that publishers are really good for just two basic components of book marketing: Distribution (getting your book into bookstores) and Media Connections (getting media attention for your title). Authors are responsible for connecting with readers. As one publisher explains: “I can’t sell a copy to your mother.” The venture capital analogy works like this: Venture capital for a startup is (when it’s good) about giving your business a chance to succeed. After that, it’s up to you.  As an author, if you’re not conscious of this reality, chances are your title won’t sell, and maybe you don’t get a second chance.

Once you have the idea firmly implanted that it’s your job to market your book effectively, you want to do everything you can to create a buzz around it. Today, that’s often about making your book and its idea(s) viral. Recommending Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, Todd explained the six basic elements of an idea that sticks: It’s Simple, Unexpected and interesting, concrete, tells a story, and is credible.

The last part of the session was about versioning: Make your content/idea available in as many ways as possible. Find your audience, and let your audience find you. One example: Someone apparently turned a chapter of her novel into a PowerPoint presentation. Building an audience through a blog on the topic. Always put your audience first.

Lunch and Afterwards

The lunch break featured a Slam Poetry demo by members of the Milwaukee slam team preparing to contest for a national title this summer in Minneapolis. You’d also find me feverishly preparing for my session(s).

We had an excellent discussion about “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” based on the book of that title by John Nichols and Bob McChesney. The discussion was greatly enhanced by the presence of Ricardo Pimentel, who runs the editorial page at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He was willing to offer some on-the-ground perspective on the state of the newspaper business. Unfortunately, time ran out just as we were getting into a rather spirited discussion of coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I do think it was a worthwhile conversation.

After running my own session, it was nice to decompress in a smaller session about real-life networking dos and don’ts.

After the networking session, I had a great conversation with Karen Ford, Internal Organizing Vice President of the National Writers Union. She came up from Chicago to see what this WriteCamp thing was all about. We may have more to announce at some point down the road.

At the end of the day, I opened myself up for questions about WordPress. This session was lightly attended, but lots of fun (presumably all the real WordPress geeks were at WordCampChicago). We worked to solve a problem where  commenters weren’t getting notified when someone responded to them. Someone else was interested in the differences between WordPress blogging and wikis. I also talked about some strategies to get more readers.

All in all, a great day! I’m really looking forward to next year. I’m also hoping there’s a way to keep WordCampChicago from conflicting! Reports from that conference sounded great too.

Update: CiviCRM Manual Launched!

The CiviCRM manual is now complete, and available at FLOSS Manuals.

Here’s the news release, emphasizing the … shall we say “unusual”? … reality that the documentation is released BEFORE the software itself. With user docs often an afterthought in open source development communities, it’s great that the CiviCRM team really put a great deal of energy into the documentation, as well as the code.

Most of the book was written over a long weekend, described here (by me) and here (by the CiviCRM team). It was great fun, and I hope to contribute again soon.

Six Days Till WriteCamp2 in Milwaukee!

Hey folks, there’s still time to make plans to attend WriteCamp2 in Milwaukee next weekend! This camp is for you if your interests lie toward the written (or typed) word. Bloggers, poets, journalists, business and technical writers, fiction and nonfiction writers – we want to see you! Any other writers, and would-be writers I left out – yes, you too!

You can read about what I’m doing at WriteCamp at my other site. In brief, I’ll be leading a discussion about the future of American journalism, and doing something related to WordPress. I’ll have copies of WordPress in Depth on hand, and a pen to sign them with. I’ll also be at the pre-party Friday night, having some fun.

But WriteCamp is not entirely about the published and famous laying out the One True Path to publishing fame, because there isn’t any such thing. WriteCamp is about every participant sharing their passion and knowledge about whatever writing-related topic strikes them.

Hope to see you in my hometown!

Rockin’ FLOSS Manuals: The CiviCRM book sprint

If you use open source software, and aren’t a programmer, you may wonder how you can give back to the community that provides you with such marvelous tools at no-to-little cost.  At the same time, maybe you’ve run into a problem running some piece of open source software, clicked F1 or otherwise looked for some help in doing something—and found little or no help on offer. There’s a way to solve both these problems: Check out, and get involved with, the FLOSS Manuals project.

Recently I’ve made the time to participate in one of the more fun institutions of the FLOSS Manuals project: the Book Sprint. Programmers of all stripes know about sprints, the Agile technique of defining a set period of time when some new software gets finished. In the open source world, sprints are times where usually far-flung volunteer development teams gather in some specific place for a long weekend for a coding intensive session. New versions don’t necessarily come out of the sprint, but usually it moves a lot closer to “done.” FLOSS Manual book sprints bring writers (and often, programmers) together aiming to finish a manual, new or updated. Occasionally new manuals are even created from nothing in a weekend. The best part is that you don’t always have to get on an airplane to participate. Remote folks are welcome!

Our task for the last weekend in April was to complete a major updating of the CiviCRM user guide. This web application designed as a Drupal module, and now also a  Joomla! extension, is built like a customer relationship manager (hence the CRM) for nonprofits and political organizations. This makes it more like a community organizer’s best friend.

Counting FLOSS Manuals founder Adam Hyde, and O’Reilly editor Andy Oram, there were about a half-dozen participants gathered somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area and two remote copy editors: Me in Milwaukee, and Helen in New Zealand. The writers were busy all day Saturday, and delivered the first chapters to the copy editors late Sunday. Throughout the sprint, a chat stream kept everyone together to get questions answered and occasionally engage in the usual banter. You could access the chat both from a standard IRC client and directly from the Sprint page at FLOSS Manuals. Other communication took place on the FLOSS Manuals standard discussion list, which you can sign up for here.

The editing took place directly on the FLOSS Manuals site, with the standard visual editor (TinyMCE?) Checking out chapters for editing, and checking in edited material was quite simple. If you’ve ever used a tool like Google Docs (or the WordPress visual editor), you can handle this. It may not be overly complicated, but it works very well.

On Tuesday, the sprint ended, and the revision was formally released. But the copy editing continues, and I should be getting back to it!

Seriously, this project is for you if you fit any or all of these characteristics:

  • You are passionate about open source software
  • You like describing how software works to others
  • You want to see if technical writing/communication might be an appropriate career move, but don’t know how to get experience
  • You like hanging out with geeks and/or writers, either in Real Life or virtually

Hope to see some of you over at FLOSS Manuals soon! Look over the projects, and if you see something you’d like to help with, register and have at it. If you want to write about a particular open source project that isn’t listed here, mention it on the mailing list and you can organize your own sprint!

For another perspective on the sprint, visit the CiviCRM Blog posts on the sprint.

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Celebrating Ursula K. LeGuin

Today (March 24) is Ada Lovelace Day, the second annual celebration of women in science and technology. Bloggers from all over (if perhaps a little weighted towards the UK and the Northern Hemisphere) have pledged to write about women that inspire them. I’m proud to be involved.

As a professional writer, I’m naturally drawn to others with an affinity for words and sentences. I’m especially fond of those who use their facility with words to change the world and make it a more just and humane place. Last year, I told you about Ronda Hauben, the auto worker who knew the future was in building electronic communities. This year, I want to highlight someone with a little higher profile, but who has also used her writing to help us along the path.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (please explore the topography of the home page before clicking Enter)  is a writer of superlative speculative fiction, but maybe you know that already. Wikipedia, as usual, offers an excellent introduction to Le Guin’s life and career. Fantastic Fiction also has a nice bibliography (though the site looks like it hasn’t been redesigned since 1997). But what does a fiction writer who seems more interested in social issues rather than hard science have to do with Ada Lovelace?

Well, science is a broad category, and Le Guin (UKL, for short) clearly shares her father’s interest in what makes humans (and humanoids) tick. UKL shines a light on contemporary society through the descriptions of alien cultures. As she put it in a recent interview with a science blogger: “‘The future’ in most science fiction is just a metaphor for ‘us, here, now.'” But it isn’t entirely because of her writing that I’m paying tribute today.

If you care about writing, creativity, and the ability to make a living from same, you’ll be wise to follow the court battle over Google’s plan to digitize and effectively own every book ever created. It’s one thing to want to create a free digital library available to all. It’s quite another to create that library in the interest of profit.

UKL resigned from the Author’s Guild when that organization (along with a batch of publishers) agreed to a settlement of the copyright infringement case against Google. She helped mobilize the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the National Writers Union to oppose the settlement. And with the help of the US Justice Department, we just might win.

Thanks, Ms. Le Guin, for being inspirational in both your writing, and in helping us to understand that the struggle for our rights never ends.

Now it’s your turn. There’s a lot of time for you to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day. If you blog, check out Finding Ada and sign up. If not, comment here about women in science and tech that helped make you what you are today. Feel free to comment on the Google Settlement and Ursula K. Le Guin too! Check out the other ALD10 blogs too.

WordPress in Depth: Soon at a Bookstore Near You

It’s always exciting for an author of any sort: a few days ago, I got my author copies of WordPress in Depth. This means the book is making its way through the distribution channels. Thus, if you live in a decent-sized city that hosts a bookstore with a decently-sized computer book section, you should be able to see the striking white and blue cover of the In Depth series.

This being the modern age, books are also available online. You’ve got options, of course:

The website upgrade at is taking a little longer than expected, but should be ready in a few days.

Another exciting thing: I’m speaking to the new Milwaukee PHP User Group on April 13. More on that as we get closer to the event.

More Free and Open Source Tools for Writers

It’s funny how social media can work so well sometimes. I happened to be playing with a new Twitter client (Choqok for KDE, if you must know) over the weekend and TweetOpenSource had a link to 100 Awesome Open Source Tools for Writers, Journalists, and Bloggers. After a quick look, I retweeted the link.

Anne Wayman, who used to run the Freelance Writing page at, and has since struck out on her own, saw my retweet and posted it on her blog. I’m now returning the favor (Thanks, Anne!).

Anyway, the list is interesting. While not everything on the list is open source (Evernote for sure, and perhaps there are others that I’m not aware of), everything is free. All the tools I talked about at the WritersUA conference are on this list. I haven’t used a bunch of these tools, and I look forward to trying many of them.

A couple of notes and quibbles:

  • I would have switched the categories of LyX and Scribus. LyX is a document manager and writing tool. Scribus is a desktop publisher that prefers that you write your content elsewhere and import it on to a page.
  • NeoOffice was created as a Mac version of OpenOffice, but now that OOo has its own Mac version, I don’t know if NeoOffice is still in production. Could be wrong, though.
  • Azureus has a new name, Vuze.
  • It’s been a long time since NVU has been in production. If you’re interested in a simple web authoring system, KompoZer might suit you better.
  • The list cheats a little, in that Pidgin is the new name for the Gaim instant messenger (AOL was never too happy with the old moniker).

But overall, if you’re new to open source tools, this list is a great place to start.

What do you think of the list? What’s missing? Anything that doesn’t belong? Comment freely.

Upcoming Midwest Gatherings for Writers, Technical and Otherwise

I’ve been busy working on a summary of my WritersUA Conference experience, but while I’m doing that, the first week in June is shaping up to be a great time for writers in the Midwest (and elsewhere) to get together and talk in the next few months.

  • June 2-5: The DocTrain DITA Conference is in Indianapolis. For the rest of April, they have a pretty amazing special going, acknowledging the difficulty in getting people to come to conferences in a deep recession. if you call them at 978-649-8555 to register, you can get the two-day conference registration (on the 3rd and 4th), hands-on software and DITA skills workshops on the 2nd and 5th, all meals, AND three nights at the conference hotel for $999. The only other money you’d have to come up with is transportation. While that still works out to $250 a day, that’s still within many companies reach, and will be an important investment for folks looking at the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. That should be just about everyone involved in online user assistance.
  • June 6-7: WordCampChicago is likely to be a great time to learn more about WordPress, the platform that this and many other blogs run on. Lisa Sabin-Wilson of WordPress for Dummies fame is involved. Matt Mullenweg will give a “State of the Word” address on Saturday, and many other great things will undoubtedly happen. Of course, it’s all free of charge. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there, because I will be at…
  • June 6: WriteCampMilwaukee, a first-of-its-kind (that I know of anyway) unconference for writers of all genres. covered it in a short piece today. I’m going to do a session on getting into technical writing, and maybe introduce folks to the National Writers Union too. So if you write for a living, or write just to live, come share with us.

Finally, if you work on documentation for open source projects, you should think about hitting one more June conference: Writing Open Source in Owen Sound, Ontario on June 12-14. This is an intriguing idea, and while I may not have the resources to go, hope springs eternal.

All in all, some great opportunities.